It's seven years since dance music's most riotous outfit released an album - but the Prodigy are back. Liam Howlett tells Alexis Petridis about ditching his bandmates, overcoming writer's block and how he fell in love with an All Saint.
For someone who has made his fortune out of disturbingly angry music, Liam Howlett does not look terribly angst-ridden. Over the years, the records the Prodigy have released have been accused of everything from inciting arson to condoning domestic violence. They have caused enough controversy to garner comparisons with the Sex Pistols: the mere sight of Prodigy vocalist Keith Flint in the video for their 1996 number-one Firestarter - head shaved down the middle, remaining hair fashioned into two red spikes, make-up smeared face a pantomime of ridiculous snarls and gurns - was enough to provoke a storm of outraged calls to Top of the Pops.
The band's members have engaged in public slanging matches with the Beastie Boys and Moby, artists perturbed by the title of the Prodigy's 1997 hit, Smack My Bitch Up. And yet, as he lounges on a roof terrace in Camden, Howlett seems a veritable picture of softly spoken contentment. The closest he comes to doing anything outrageous is drowning a wasp in his bottle of Smirnoff Ice, unless you count his heroic dedication to swearing, which would impress even his prospective brother-in-law, Liam Gallagher (He is married to former All Saints star Natalie Appleton, whose sister Nicole is Gallagher's partner.) During one spirited assault on the state of contemporary music, Howlett manages to use the word "fucking" 14 times in six sentences.
His turn of phrase can make the simple act of sampling an old record sound surprisingly disturbing: "I like taking other people's shit," he says, "and squeezing it and moulding it." Perhaps his good humour is down to relief. It is seven years since the last Prodigy album, the 8.5 million-selling The Fat of the Land, and four years since Howlett embarked upon making its follow-up. He announced it would be called Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, over the internet in 2001, but despite the cocky title, the making of the album proved anything but smooth.
Howlett suffered a lengthy bout of writer's block. Dancer Leroy Thornhill left the band shortly after work commenced, although Howlett claims his departure was down to nothing more sinister than a leg injury: "His dancing days are over," he nods, without a hint of irony. In 2002, much to the chagrin of his record company, Howlett scrapped a semi-completed album, after the release of the single Baby's Got a Temper, a flatly awful concoction of uninspired music and platitudinous lyrical outrage. Its references to date-rape drug Rohypnol led to a BBC ban, but the sense that all concerned were trying too hard to shock was impossible to escape.
"I think we were starting to take ourselves a little too seriously," he concedes. "I'm glad it came out, because it really gave me a kick up the arse. It made me analyse what I'm about." He came to the conclusion that neither Flint nor longstanding rapper Keith "Maxim" Palmer should appear on the new album. Instead, he would call upon guest vocalists, including Gallagher, actress Juliette Lewis and Kool Keith of legendary 80s rap act Ultramagnetic MCs.
It's certainly a brave move, to ditch the public face of the Prodigy at a crucial juncture in the band's career, but you can't imagine the news going down terribly well with the rest of the band, particularly considering that the solo projects they had launched after The Fat Of The Land - an eponymous punk band for Flint, a rap album, Hell's Kitchen, for Palmer - had resolutely failed to set the world alight.
"Was that a difficult conversation to have? Erm, it wasn't quite as simple as that. After Baby's Got a Temper, they knew I wasn't into it. I told them: this is a load of shit. I recorded a couple of new tracks and pulled them into the studio and said, Listen, we all want this shit to continue, I'm going to write an album that we can all perform live, that's all you need to worry about. Basically, we've got to put the focus back on the music. Initially, they didn't understand the angle, but once they heard the music, I think Keith was relieved, actually. Prior to The Fat of the Land, they weren't in the studio much anyway. They only turned up as mates to hear what I'd done."
The best moments of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned - the implausibly sleazy opening track Spitfire, Gallagher's fantastic, deranged closing number Shoot Down - suggest the gamble has paid off, and Howlett is bullish about the album's contents: "It's me with my fists in the air, it makes me feel 10 ft tall."
But he is also pragmatic about its commercial chances after seven years in which rock and pop music have changed drastically: the last time the Prodigy released an album, dance music was still a major commercial force, no one had heard of Simon Cowell and people still seriously compared Oasis with the Beatles: "When you're a new band, you come out, fresh to new ears, that's fucking exciting. We'll never have that again, but we've got the next best thing - a whole new generation of kids. It's like a challenge. None of us are under the illusion that it's going to be easy, but it's good to come out as the underdog, come out fighting again and say: listen to this."
When the Prodigy were a new band, few observers ever thought they would have to face the dilemma of how to finish their fourth album. With the best will in the world, they did not look like a band built to last. They emerged in 1991 from the Essex branch of the "hardcore" scene, the dafter, faster, less elitist, offspring of acid house. It was at the hardcore raves that dance music's sillier excesses were born: boggle-eyed ravers in white gloves and fluorescent clothes, sucking dummies or sporting smog masks smeared with Vicks VapoRub decongestant, the smell of which was reputed to enhance the effects of ecstasy.
The Prodigy's first hit, Charly, reached number two. It sampled the mewing of a cartoon cat from an early 70s public information film. It was, to all intents and purposes, a novelty record, an accusation that still rankles with Howlett: "I stand by that record. It's a great fucking tune. Whether or not it was comical, who gives a shit? It was the imitators afterwards that were the problem." They certainly were. Charly's success spawned a short-lived movement dubbed "toytown techno", in which hardcore producers raided vintage children's television for jokey inspiration.
Like the long-forgotten makers of A Trip to Trumpton, Sesame's Treet and Roobarb And Custard, the Prodigy were widely expected to vanish overnight, an impression that their early live shows did little to dispel. "They were insane," Howlett chuckles. "Just drug-fuelled, ecstasy-fuelled, a real laugh. We used to do nine or 10 songs with Keith and Leroy dancing. You turned up at the rave, it was run by gangsters, you didn't know whether or not you were going to get paid. They were full of characters, people who were completely twatted. It was an adventure."
A horrified Mixmag magazine accused Howlett of single-handedly turning dance music from an ultra-cool and wildly subversive folk devil into a national laughing stock, an opinion widely shared by the club cognoscenti. Yet the Prodigy resolutely failed to fade away. They transformed themselves into serious, globally popular artists with their second album, 1994's dark, complex Music For The Jilted Generation, a record which, Howlett rightly points out, "made a lot of the dance scene seem throwaway".
With the release of The Fat of the Land, they briefly became the biggest band in the world: in its first week of release, it entered the charts at number one in 23 countries. Firestarter remains the most extreme piece of music ever to top the charts. And yet somehow, the stigma of Charly has never been entirely eradicated.
The Prodigy have been groundbreaking, controversial, critically lauded, musically influential and wildly successful, yet they have never really been fashionable. Flint may have minted one of the most striking images in recent pop history but you never saw anyone copy it. The makers of a late-90s TV ad for an energy drink dressed a pensioner up as Flint to evoke their product's vigour-giving properties (an unamused Flint, displaying what might charitably be described as a shaky grasp of the mechanics of advertising, later threatened to beat up the aged actor, apparently feeling he was responsible for the entire commercial), but that was it: dressing like a cross between a clown and the sort of punk you used to see on postcards in London tourist shops seemed a step too far even for the most rebellious teen.
"We had to really fight to get respect," says Howlett. "The dance scene in particular has always been quite snobby against us." He has relentlessly baited clubbers in the past, memorably telling one journalist that he hoped Ibiza got bombed. Understandably, he is unmoved by dance music's recent decline in fortunes. "I really don't know much about it to be honest. I don't listen to much dance music. That kind of Ibiza music, that shit that Pete Tong plays, I hate that shit. I sound like my dad, but it's fucking music by numbers. The lack of imagination does my brain in. Like, if I'm in a petrol station and the dude pulls in with his fucking shades and his nice shirt and his car stereo playing his Ibiza music, it just fucking irritates me. They're so fucking annoying. It's so stale, something needs to poke out. It would be cool to have bands that are like, electronic bands with leather jackets on, but with no guitars, no drum-kits, just raw electronics. If there's any fucking kids out there, I'm up for producing you, because I'm into the idea of creating an army against the DJs."
Even today, 15 million albums later, Howlett still seems entirely removed from accepted notions of cool. Today, he is sporting a pair of trainers that appear to be made of fluorescent pink faux-ponyskin. He drinks alcopops. Like Alan Partridge, he is steadfast in the belief that Roger Moore was the quintessential James Bond: "In my bedroom, glass of Jack Daniel's, Moonraker or Octopussy on the DVD - I'm a happy man."
As with Depeche Mode, something of Essex still inexplicably clings to the Prodigy, even when they're filling stadiums in the midwest of America. Howlett is rather pleased about this. "It seems a really English thing. Americans seem to rape and pillage music scenes but they don't do it as well. Like punk - they had the punk thing in the palm of their hands, but they didn't know what to do with it. It was England that made it a scene. It was England that made dance music a scene, they made it important, not just disco. That's what I mean when I say I'm proud to be English. No other country in the world can do that."
The criticism levelled at the Prodigy's early career seems to have had one other lasting effect upon Howlett's character. He has the sort of trenchant, implacable attitude to concepts like "selling out" and the inherent evil of commercial pop that you more commonly find in a teenage Kerrang! reader than a 32-year-old multimillionaire producer. Howlett has made some of the greatest pop music of the last decade, but you suspect that if you said that to his face, he would be mortally offended.
When Pete Townshend, misreading the songwriting credits for Firestarter, mistakenly claimed in an interview that Howlett had co-written it with Frankie Goes to Hollywood producer Trevor Horn, Howlett felt compelled to ring the Who guitarist up: "I couldn't have him thinking I made a record with one of those twats." He talks about going to Dave Stewart's wedding - "lots of people there, Bono, Jagger" - then quickly qualifies himself: "I wasn't impressed at all."
He was similarly unmoved when Madonna asked him to DJ at her London concert. "It was shite," he says, apparently untroubled by the fact that Madonna owns the Prodigy's US record label, Maverick. "She phoned me up at two in the morning. I was like 'How did you get my number?' And she said 'Come on, I'm Madonna.' I did it for the money. I got twenty grand. I liked the idea of playing the Sex Pistols and some other obscene shit to Madonna's fans, but I knew it wasn't going to be any good."
He says his attitude to pop nearly scuppered his relationship with Appleton, by whom he has a five-month-old son, Ace. "Keith comes round my house and says 'We should go to V2000'. I was like, 'OK, what bands are on?' I open the paper and the first band I see is All Saints. I said, 'I'm not going there! I don't want to see fucking All Saints!' That was the head I had on me - I wasn't into any type of pop music. But I ended up going and that's how I met her."
In theory at least, the relationship should have catapulted Howlett into the pages of Heat and OK!. The Appletons are the kind of pop stars for whom tabloid publicity is more integral to their success than any musical considerations: their debut album famously had its release date changed because of the media furore created by the sisters' tell-all biography.
Howlett says he simply avoids the paparazzi's haunts: "I don't go to film premieres and fancy restaurants." But surely his wife needs to be seen in those places for the benefit of her career? Does she never say, "Oh, come on, love, do me a favour, come to the Met Bar"? No, he says, she's not like that. "She's actually really cool. I would not have gone out with her if she was a headline-grabber. When we go out with Liam and Nic, it's always funny, they're always going to get that kind of attention. While they're getting photographed, me and Nat just bomb off, it's great. Liam fucking hates it. The press provoke him. You know they do, man. I've been out to places with him, and the photographers are deliberately shouting things out, just so they can get a picture. I don't know if I could cope with that level of fame. People thinking they know you when they don't.
"I saw it happen with Keith as well. One guy comes up to him in an airport, goes: 'All right Keith?', rubs his head as if he's some mascot or something, then goes, 'You want to cut your hair'. So Keith grabs him by the scruff of the neck, and goes: 'You want to lose some weight you fat cunt'." Howlett laughs. "That sums it up really."
He says a paparazzo has annoyed him only once, after the birth of his son. "I was walking up the street with the pram. They grab a couple of pictures. Cool. Then I walked up the road and they were hiding behind lampposts and shit. That ain't on, mate."
His voice rises in indignation. "They were all over the fucking place, trying to get pictures inside of the fucking pram. And I'm like, for fuck's sake. I don't need that shit to sell records." It is the first time he has sounded remotely angry all afternoon. "Nah. All the anger on the records just comes out of battling with myself, to make the tracks better. Politics? It's never political for us. We just write music for people to go 'yeah!' to. To be honest with you," he grins, "I've never been angry about anything in my fucking life."